The 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race did not go as planned for Nicolas Petit and his team. Petit was in or near the lead for almost all of the race, but everything broke down on the run between Shaktoolik and Koyuk.

Petit's pace had everyone marveling. However, on the coast outside Shaktoolik a dog named Joee jumped on another dog and after Petit yelled to separate them the whole team refused to run. With a snowmachine ride back to Shaktoolik and a scratch the next evening, the team that had been in first place was out of the race.

Peter Kaiser would take the lead and, ultimately, the win.

Media reports stated there had been a dog fight, which Petit refutes. (KTVA initially reported this, but corrected its story upon reviewing an interview with Petit from Iditarod Insider at the time.)

National and international sources have focused on him yelling at his team, which has drawn criticism online. Especially hard for Petit, who is known to call his sled dogs his children.

Nic Petit speaks with news reporters briefly during his stop in Unalakleet Sunday. (Photo Courtesy: Dave Poyzer)

He wanted to set the record straight, and in an interview with Iditarod Insider on Friday, he explained what happened.

Some have commented that his team’s response — suddenly stopping and refusing to run — shows they were pushed too far. Petit said that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I don’t think anybody would believe that they were tired if they saw them in Shaktoolik. But for some reason nobody has seen them in Shaktoolik. Even though there’s great footage of a dog team loping into Shaktoolik, jumping in the air this high, loping out of Shaktoolik,” he said.

Petit said he’s seen the photos and video of the dogs there and he hopes everybody else does, too.

“Very soon because it should have been put out before people started making up their own ideas,” he stressed. “This dog team was not tired. This dog team was not overexerted.”

As to what happened between his dogs, he said it was one dog bullying another:

“This year on the trip I had Joee, in lead to start with. Really cool dog; he finished last year’s Iditarod as a yearling. And he’s the only man, real male, [...] on the team any more. Well he’s in front of wheel, and a few times when the little puppy in front of him backed up to poop a little bit, you know, [Joee] tried to tackle him. Like, ‘This is fun.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, Joee leave him alone.’ And really not causing any real trouble, just leave him alone. Going down the trail, so we’re going pretty quick and puppy gotta poop and Joee tackles him. ‘I’ve had enough of this Joee, knock it out.’

Nobody actually got bit. There wasn’t any dog fight. There’s just a puppy being harassed by a bully. And what do you do? Let the bully be a bully or do you tell the bully that’s enough? Vocally only.”

After that, Petit said he got his team situated then stood back on the sled and told his dogs, “Alright, let’s go!” But they didn’t move. He said he told them they were close to the cabin where they camped the year before, but they wouldn’t budge.

“I stayed four and a half hours I think, on the side in the wind with the straw. And I decided that was not a good place to spend any more time. It was good that we had the straw, we used it and all that. So I packed up whatever straw I could and tried to go. I tried to go with other teams coming by; that didn’t help.

Joar [Leifseth Ulsom] tried to help me, but we weren’t going to jeopardize his race trying to help me. He tried once, I said, ‘OK, thank you’ and then he went. And then I brought them back to that straw.

Stayed there a little longer, packed up some of the straw and it didn’t work. We just, OK, we’re not going to stay in this wind. So how do we get forward? It’s against the rules to have more than two dogs abreast. I’m not going to leave my dogs in the wind, that doesn’t make any sense. Winning is not really the issue, it’s getting safe somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. We’re going to go somewhere and be safe and sound and have a hopefully positive experience from here on.”

As to why the team stopped, Petit tearfully said it was hard for his dogs to return to the place where everything went awry last year.

While leading in the 2018 race, a wrong turn cost him the lead just a couple hundred miles from the finish line. It opened the door for Joar Leifseth Ulsom to take first, leaving Petit with a hollow second-place finish.

“This dog team was flying towards a place where the worst run of their lives began last year. We had a very, very tough run last year. We had to find our way through something that we were not expecting. [...] We’re not going to go back to that again, but basically it was a really, really tough run we did last year. And I’m very proud of them for what they did then.

And I can’t blame them for not wanting to go back to a place where their last experience with it was the toughest run of their lives. It’s toughest for me, too. I was bawling. I mean, I wasn’t upset at them at all. I wasn’t upset at all. I was just so sorry for them that I wasn’t able to keep them on the right path, so that they could come in here first and show what they’re made of.”

The 2018 run was ever-present in his mind during this year’s Iditarod. Under his cool, easy-going exterior it was easy to see that he burned white-hot at the chance for his team to earn their redemption.

When he made the choice to scratch, he said it was in the best interest of the mental well-being of his team. In Friday’s interview, he tearfully remembered the moment decided to drop out.

“Do you give them another toughest run of their lives or do you go home?” he asks. “So we go home — and then we’re gonna fix it.”

He plans to race and run in the area during the off-season to get his team used to what he called an eerie place for dogs who are used to running through trees. They don’t know that it can be fun on the ice, he said.

“[...] my dog team and I will be flying out to Unalakleet or someplace close to there, running through there with steaks and T-bones. Well, no T-bones. No bone, but you know. We’re going to have a good old time going back and forth.

And why stop there? Golovin can be a tough place, too. We’re going to lollygag all the way to White Mountain and back and we’re going to show them this is our new backyard and there’s nothing to be scared of and everything’s fine.”

Petit was also quick to quash another rumor.

“And no, I will not get rid of my dogs,” he said, matter-of-factly through tears. “My dog team is awesome.”

Petit said he plans to race the Paul Johnson Memorial Norton Sound 450, which runs between Unalakleet and Nome. He said past mushers used to run that race to get teams used to that section of the Iditarod Trail.

The Iditarod will switch back to the northern route in 2020, but the stretch from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik to Koyuk is still a part of it. It's a wall he’ll need to get past in order to win.

KTVA's Dave Goldman and John Thompson contributed to this report.

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